Report on the World Congress on Matriarchy

by Max Dashu, The Suppressed Histories Archives

On September 5-7, over 400 women and two handfuls of men gathered for the World Congress on Matriarchy. This first-of-its-kind conference, organized by Heide Gottner-Abendroth and her Hagia Academy, took place in Luxembourg, a small country between France and Germany. Its Minister of Women’s Affairs, Marie-Josée Jacobs, arranged for the conference to meet in the great curved hall of the Luxembourg Congress, with simultaneous translation in English, German, and French.

Most attendees came from Germany, and others from the U.S., China, Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Turkey. Presenters spoke on a variety of subjects, from ancient matristic cultures to living egalitarian matrilineages, especially those in Asia and Africa. Others discussed their ideas about how the historical shift to male dominated societies occurred and how it relates to militarism and ecological destruction. Among the featured speakers were Bay Area scholars Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, and Joan Marler, the biographer of Marija Gimbutas, who gave a wonderful talk on the significance of sacred cosmologies in Old Europe.

Out of dozens of lectures, some of the most interesting were those about the Mosuo people of Yunnan, China. Dr. Ru Xian Yan, who spent thirty years researching their egalitarian culture, highlighted the centrality of mothers in a social system that links sisters as “social mothers” of each others’ children. The Mosuo professor Lamu Gatusa offered important insights into his people’s philosophy of human relations. He said that they don’t have marriage; lovers are connected only by affection, with no common property, no divorce -- and no in-law problems! The Mosuo say that patriarchal marriage systems make no sense: “Why do you have to love only one person all your life, one person to fulfil all your needs? Why marry and turn lovers into enemies? Why sacrifice the most valuable and beautiful feelings in life by connecting them to property and material survival? We really can’t understand!”

Lamu Gatusa also said that the Mosuo are facing problems from the outside world, especially the tourist industry which stereotypes them as the free love society, or romanticizes them as people who just sing and dance. Global mass culture is in their faces, too, from modern media and movie stars to cell phones and the Internet. Many young people leave for the cities, but most come back because of the harshness of the dominant culture, especially toward women. He added that the youth return with increased confidence in their own Mosuo way of life.

Eminent feminist anthropologist Peggy R. Sanday talked about the years she has spent among the Minangkabau people in western Sumatra. In the 1600s they converted to Islam, which prescribes patrilineage, they have kept their matrilineal traditions alive. They have a saying, “Growth in nature is our teacher,” and place great emphasis on nurturing and harmonious relations. Aggressive behavior is frowned on.

The same is true of the Tuareg / Imashagh people of the Sahara desert. Helène Claudot-Hawad gave a fascinating talk on their view of male and female. She said that they are paired as complementary parts of a whole, with women representing the full, deep, night, dense, permanent, known, protected interior, and men the outer, bright, day, exterior, desert, warm, unknown, dangerous and dynamic or changing. They say that the feminine is prior to the masculine, which is reflected in their origin stories that begin with a maternal ancestor. Tuareg women have complete liberty, and are known for takana, their majestic walk “as if the world was flowing behind them.” They shine in poetry and the number of lovers and visitors they attract with their hospitality.

Several presenters made the point that mother-right societies value giving more than accumulating possessions. It is sharing that gives social prestige. The importance of the sister-brother bond, rather than husband-wife, was another recurring theme. Lots of commonalities surfaced during the course of the weekend. The Kabyles of Algeria and the Sumatran Minangkabau both describe the central pillar of their houses as “mother,” reported Malika Grasshoff and Peggy Sanday.

Sanday addressed the common assumption that all societies have been male dominated, saying that in fact “the social contract for patriarchy” had to be created. She said that we need to describe how an egalitarian social contract was overthrown by one based on domination. Claudia von Wehlhof talked about how mother-right cultures were overturned through war, “divide and rule” tactics, and restructuring society into private and public spheres. This made possible “the extraction of female energy,” according to the principle “women work, men earn.”

Several beautiful movies by German film-makers were shown. Uschi Madeisky’s “Daughters of the Seven Huts” was especially impressive. Her documentary showed how the Khasi people are preserving their indigenous culture in northeastern India, amidst big changes coming from outside. The famously independent Tehuanas of Oaxaca were the subject of “The Women of Juchitán.” Another film, “Daughters of the Tents,” gave a gorgeous real-time view of life among the Tuareg of Mali.

An impressive sculptural installation by Marianne Pitzen stood just outside the assembly hall. “The New Society, or Politeia” represented a council of women, artistically modelled on the Matronae sculptures of the ancient Gauls who once lived in Luxembourg. And in fact, lots of networking was going on at this conference, only slightly hampered by the inexplicable absence of nametags. Plans are being made for a second conference to be held in Austin, Texas, in 2005.


Max Dashu is director of the Suppressed Histories Archives,
a global women’s history project in Oakland, California.